Network Realism

The topic for discussion today is Network Realism, which is a somewhat nebulous and imperfectly formed theory and I’m certain no one’s really understood completely. It was coined by James Bridle as we all know.

What is Network Realism? For that we’ll need a cursory idea of what Realism implies. I’m sure most of you have an idea already.

Realism was an art movement, which enjoyed a long period of patronage particularly of writers and critics in the late 1800s. It was realism because it bore a close relationship to the material reality of its time. The time factor is significant because unlike most other movements in literature, it did concern not itself with any mythic or grand historical themes; it was very much entrenched in daily life in and of its time.

Right, now that we have realism sorted, we can try to understand Network Realism, but before getting into that, I’m going to contextualize it using my own vantage point.

There was this book that I’d read a few years ago: It was called White Teeth. It was by this British author Zadie Smith. I was very taken by the book, in particular this character of a Bangladeshi immigrant. About a few months ago, I was reading up on the book and it came to my attention that the character I was talking about is actually based on a real person who was known to Smith. This person is a well known public figure. And this was very ambivalent for me because here you have a character from a book who’s literally come to life and is a real person. And yet, I felt that this person was more real inside Zadie Smith’s fictional universe rather than in the actual physical world.

That’s probably just me but I suspect it’s not an alien feeling and I think this approximates my own relationship to the internet or the network and how it bears upon my understanding of reality as we know it.

I realize this is turning into a discussion on metaphysics but I do think that it’s important to not take the network for granted and understand how it changes our notion of reality. There is a French philosopher. His name’s Jean Baudrillard and his work on Simulacrum and Simulation is, in my opinion, a good framework of reference to understand what’s happening here.

Simulacrum is essentially a copy or imitation of what one might call the real thing. Baudrillard believes that all of reality has been replaced by simulacra; that everything, including our conception of reality is just an imitation.

He uses this parable, it was originally a short story by John Louis Borges, the Argentinian writer. The story goes that there was an empire and it was covered by a map that was drawn to scale. It’s a simulacrum of the empire. This map was as big and as detailed as the very territory that it was covering. It was an evolving map so that every time, the empire acquired or lost a new piece of territory, it would change accordingly. Overtime, people began thinking of this map as the empire itself. The map itself became their notion of the empire that they inhabited. Their spatial position was on the map and not on the actually physical territory of the empire. They began living in the map, so to speak and eventually could not tell the difference between the map and the physical territory that it was covering. And in time, they were unable to comprehend that there was ever a territory beneath the map.

I think the internet is sort of like this map; it is the ultimate simulacrum because it is a real-time and constantly evolving representation of the world and by the world. People actively participate in modifying and making changes to it.

In effect, as happened in the case of the empire and its subjects where they started seeing the map as the actual territory, we, too, with our increasing engagement with the network, are losing touch with reality from which the network used to be absent. It is like perpetuating a myth without knowing that there is a myth in the first place. The internet, in its initial days, used to be thought of quite abstractly because such a thing was unprecedented. Now, we are slowly reaching a position where we don’t find ourselves looking at the network as the other or as anything remotely foreign or unnatural to the human experience.

And none of this is strange to us because we created the network; it is us, collectively, who are the network.

We are spending more and more time on the network. We trust the network, for the most part; our thoughts, conversations, fears, feelings or points of view are either informed, trained or directly shaped by it. The network is our window to things that our far removed from our offline experience. The empire’s map was created to make its citizens understand the geographical contours of the empire. The internet was our guide to the world but it is becoming its own reality.

And the reason why that is is because it’s an irresistible reality. It is an infinite reality where, by virtue of what you search and what catches your fancy, you can change and choose your reality. There are no limitations, you can vicariously be what you want, be in the presence of anything you want. The limitations of your offline existence do not apply here. We spend our most curious hours online. It is a distraction to which we, without much resistance, volunteer our attention.

This, of course, is by no means a novel theory by any stretch. There were similar anxieties about television when it first came along. But, I think, the situation with the internet is a game-changer and since we happen to be in a publishing class, despite all evidence to the contrary, we can make some sense of it by looking at fiction.

“Turn off the computer. Write by hand!”: Will Self

“I keep Word open on top of Firefox”: William Gibson

We all know Will Self, the bane of the novel. William Gibson – I’m sure most of you’ve hear about him – is a science fiction writer who actually happens to live in Vancouver.

So, now we have two entirely opposing schools of thought. Will Self, who’s all about disconnecting and locking himself up in French garret to write the next great existential novel. And Gibson, who probably spends more time on the internet than all of us combined.

Now, the reason I suspect Gibson spends so much time on the internet is because his novels show it. James Bridle talks about how his novels are turning less and less futuristic over the years. Science Fiction itself seems to be in a crisis because lately it just does not seem to be able to imagine futures that seem too distant. This might be because we are living in an age of inexorable technological advancement. But, there’s more to it. James Bridle gives us this example of flying penguins, which appear in Gibson’s recent novels. They’re basically like surveillance drones that appear in one of the chapters. And, of course, this is bizarrely fantastical and a perfect imagining for a science fiction novel but a few days after Bridle read the book, someone Tweeted him a link to a company that actually manufactures these aerodynamic penguins. This can’t be mere coincidence; Gibson definitely found them online and worked them into his fiction. In fact, he seems to be doing this more and more. There are actually forums on the internet where users are annotating his texts and looking up digital footprints of his narratives. Some of these are actually very good and they’ve managed to trace Gibson’s Google history from start to finish.

And Gibson is very much a miner of information on the internet. A lot of the anxieties that Will Self has about net usage have a full-blown effect in Gibson’s novelistic imagination. He compares trawling through the internet to rummaging through the forefront of the global collective mind.

And Gibson has somewhat acknowledged that as well. He says that he gets plenty of ideas from his Twiiter Feed.
What’s obvious is that none of this would have been possible had it not been for the network. It’s a hyper-connected labyrinth of links.

And that’s Network Realism. Network, because like Gibson’s fiction, it comes from the network. It was networking that introduced him to the Flying Penguins. He would have had scarce chance of seeing one of those from his window. It was the network, as a simulacrum, as a psychic remove from immediate reality, which made it possible. It’s Network because it is from a place in the network which was a copy of an objective fact. It was a copy of a copy.

It’s realism because it’s real-time, it’s entrenched in the moment; Bridle read it and only days later found it trending on Twitter.

That’s Network Realism.

And Gibson already has a term for it. He calls it in the endless digital now which is made possible by this extremely heightened level and volume of communication that takes place on the internet. It’s like being in an arena where half a billion voices are being heard in simultaneity. This is an unprecedented pace and degree of information dissemination; It’s never been seen before and it does have an implication on temporality. It as if our Present Tense is being infinitely accelerated.

Rather it is as if time itself has been flattened. The Future is a notion. But nowhere more so than on the network which pulsates with millions of connections every millisecond. The Future already exists in the network’s present; to someone like Gibson and his ilk, who’re the first to receive information, there is only the present; The rest of us have to wait till they share the information and it trickles down to us. Their present is our future. The Future has arrived; it’s just that it’s unevenly distributed.